Recently, the discourse surrounding sharing New York’s streets (or perhaps more specifically, how to share them with cyclists) has become, to put it mildly, heated. Cycling in the city and the deployment of bike lanes has garnered widespread attention in the press, with The New York Times, The New Yorker and New York all thoroughly covering the unfolding drama of the contentious Prospect Park West bike lane. Having gained notoriety through media outlets across the nation, the issue has now hopped the pond, with the Guardian offering its own take on the debate. All this for what one might otherwise assume is an innocuous street improvement to accommodate cyclists.
Given this context, the Municipal Art Society’s second annual Streets Month — a month-long series of lectures and tours presented with support from the Rockefeller Foundation — is timely. Last Monday evening marked the first of several lectures this April, a lecture/panel discussion entitled “Shared Streets” that explored the challenges of sharing New York’s 6000 miles of streets, our largest public space. Tomorrow, “Big Streets: Using and Reusing City Thoroughfares” will take place at the New York Institute of Technology at 6:30pm. Click here to register.
Last week’s event featured talks from the New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner (DOT) Janette Sadik-Khan and Gil Peñalosa, former Commissioner for Parks, Recreation and Sport for the city of Bogotá, Colombia and the executive director of 8-80 Cities. These presentations were followed by a panel discussion featuring Peñalosa, Sam Schwartz of Sam Schwartz Engineering, and Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, moderated by Andrea Bernstein of WNYC’s Transportation Nation project.
As Streetsblog reports, “Shared Streets” did not exactly chart new terrain in what has become a familiar topic of conversation. That said, given how the press has characterized the passions in meetings of this sort, I was pleased to see an entirely civil evening unfold. In the formal, calm confines of the Scholastic Auditorium, the speakers underscored not only the multitude of ways the DOT has encouraged a more diverse usage of the city’s streets, but also the difficulty implementing these changes in this sometimes stubborn city. Perhaps more importantly, the event helped to reframe the debate as to why the issue remains critical to the future of New York.
Sadik-Khan’s stump speech offered an appropriate overview of the many initiatives the DOT has implemented since 2007 to foster a broader spectrum of transport modes and to fortify the streets’ multiple roles as places of mobility, commerce and recreation. This primer was helpful. The recent bike lane debates have had the capacity to obscure some of Sadik-Khan and the DOT’s other successes. Under her tenure, the agency has implemented the Select Bus Service, which has reduced transit times and increased ridership on the the routes, deployed 18 new public plazas, and launched programs like the Summer Streets program, giving Park Avenue over to cyclists and pedestrians on August Saturdays. Under the department’s more conventional remit, the DOT is working to make the streets safer, as well as providing maintenance to service the city’s transit infrastructure.
None of this is news, but it was an excellent reminder that the DOT has done an exemplary job of improving the streets for everyone; from the city’s 3 million daily bus riders, to pedestrians, motor vehicles, and of course, cyclists. In this light, it’s interesting how the bike lane issue has come to define the department and Sadik-Khan herself. Yet despite the conflict that has risen in response to the installation of bike lanes, the DOT has done a remarkable job in getting things done. Change is never easy, particularly in New York; it’s a “high profile and sometimes controversial” job, as Sadik-Khan noted, a fitting segue to Mr. Peñalosa’s presentation.
In a breakneck tour across the globe of cities implementing what could be regarded as best practices, Peñalosa echoed Sadik-Khan’s sentiment in timely soundbites. Change is hard. Looking at examples of what have become paragons of successful urban interventions — Copenhagen’s pedestrian streets and cycling culture, Paris’ Velib bike hire, Bogotá’s car-free Sundays — Peñalosa described the need to rebalance our investment in the street to correct the decades-long emphasis on the automobile, and the challenge in doing so.
Mr. Peñalosa helped to refocus the nature of the debate by reminding us of the larger issues at hand. Bike lanes aren’t only for providing cyclists with safe and efficient routes. More importantly, they’re providing New Yorkers with an alternative. Improving the entire DOT transit portfolio — providing an infrastructure of choice — is critical to keeping the city fluid, and allows it to remain competitive with other large metropolitan areas.
The final panel was a slightly less focused discussion, largely surrounding the various cycling controversies that permeated the evening: the role of cyclists on our shared streets, the rules they should obey (or ignore), and the politicization of the lanes. But what became clear from the panel was the need not only to provide the physical infrastructure for cycling but the cultural support for it as well: both the hardware and the software to foster a widespread culture of cycling in New York.
The emphasis on the lanes, a widely reported hot-button issue that has created some rather unlikely foes, is to be expected. And while the provision of bike lanes are one of the more visible of recent DOT initiatives, cyclists are by no means the only actors on a shared street, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that this issue continues to hijack much of the discussion. Sadik-Khan only touched on the success of the Select Bus Service, and their role in the DOT portfolio was largely absent from the panel discussion. While it is heartening to see such an active debate evolve — as one audience member pointed out, more people than ever are now conscious of the new bike lanes throughout the city — the discourse may distract from equally pressing issues facing the DOT.
As New Yorkers, we’re blessed with an innovative and courageous transit authority that has the foresight to provide transit alternatives that will continue to make moving through the city both easier and more enjoyable. With budget shortfalls looming, providing multiple ways to keep the city mobile is critical to ensuring New York can remain competitive globally – the actual mode is far less important than the continued ingenuity and willingness to break beyond conventional planning practices.
For now, bike lanes and cyclists will continue to dominate the Shared Street discussion in New York. But assuming continued support from the city, perhaps the strident resistance will ebb as it has in Copenhagen, Paris and Bogotá, and naysayers will slowly gain an appreciation for these contentious paths.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.